Nearing 100, Rose Bowl and Pasadena Playhouse lead full lives: Larry Wilson

The United States’ Brandi Chastain celebrates by taking off her jersey after kicking in the game-winning penalty goal against China in the FIFA Women’s World Cup Final at the Rose Bowl in 1999. (Photo by Lacy Atkins/The San Francisco Examiner)
The United States’ Brandi Chastain celebrates by taking off her jersey after kicking in the game-winning penalty goal against China in the FIFA Women’s World Cup Final at the Rose Bowl in 1999. (Photo by Lacy Atkins/The San Francisco Examiner)

Two of Pasadena’s most iconic landmarks, the Rose Bowl and the Pasadena Playhouse, are approaching their hundredth anniversaries. And they are both doing what you would do if you ran venerable nonprofits approaching the century mark — you’d launch fundraising campaigns to shore up both their aging bricks and mortar and their incredible programming.

The Rose Bowl was built in the Arroyo Seco in 1922 in its first iteration — horseshoe-shaped, with the current south end open with no seating — from a Myron Hunt design. As a proud Berkeley guy, I would note that the first football game played there was on Oct. 28, 1922, when Cal defeated USC 12–0. It was the only loss for USC, and California finished the season undefeated. Then, classic Bay Area snobs, California declined the invitation to the 1923 Rose Bowl game and USC went in the Golden Bears’ place.

The south end was closed in and the stadium grew to become at one time the largest stadium in the country, seating 104,091 from 1972 to 1997.

It’s swell to be No. 1, but the hordes were packed in like sardines, and those backless metal benches were also among the most uncomfortable places in the world to sit for the endless hours of a football game. Now 88,500 can be seated for a game, much more comfortably. And if you’re in the press box and luxury seats high on the west rim, it’s very cushy indeed.

But it cost Pasadenans a lot to build that new box, and for years the entrepreneurial Rose Bowl Operating Company, a semi-autonomous city entity, has been both increasing its programming beyond the regular UCLA football season and the monthly flea market, within restrictions the City Council has required so as not to over-burden the citizenry with traffic and noise. Berkeley pop-punkers Green Day played the stadium this past Saturday night, and though the sound check Thursday was booming, including some choice salty language at the mike from lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong, as an RB neighbor myself I can report we could barely hear the show.

Stadium management is smart to not just rely on more events to bring in revenue. Many successful people have strong sentimental attachments to the place — think of that glorious moment when Brandi Chastain won the U.S. the Women’s World Cup in 1999 — and the Rose Bowl Legacy Foundation was created as a way for the philanthropically inclined to give.

As Chris Yee reported on Sunday, UCLA alum Tod Spieker, a Bay Area real-estate guy, is inclined to give, big time. Though he was a swimmer in college and never played a game in the stadium, he loves the Bruins, and has kicked off a $40 million campaign for the centennial with a $10 million donation. Starting a drive with a quarter of the money in the till, as any fundraiser will tell you, gives an incredible leg-up to your work. The stadium’s field will be called after Spieker, but I’m OK with that — the Rose Bowl would never, unlike some commercial sell-outs, surrender top-of-the-marquee naming rights.

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“In some circles, they build a 30-year strip-mall stadium, tear it down and build a new one,” says Councilman Victor Gordo, president of the RBOC. “That’s not what we do.” That’s why Pasadena properly rejected the NFL, which would have tried to control the stadium. The citizens still control this public building, and we have an interest in keeping it great.

And the Playhouse, which began as the Community Playhouse Association of Pasadena exactly a century ago, and built its El Molino Avenue home in 1925 — designed by Myron Hunt’s partner, Elmer Grey — keeps paying it forward in its ongoing celebration of its 20-year artistic director, Sheldon Epps, who just retired. Sheldon is much beloved in both the city and in Southern California theater circles, and there was a great bash at the Playhouse Sunday night with hundreds of his friends and tributes from key performers, including Angela Bassett, who starred under his direction in “Fences,” and Richard Chamberlain, one of the many American actors who got their start at the Playhouse.

New Producing Artistic Director Danny Feldman is wise to keep his predecessor in the fold as he takes over. Like an opera company or symphony, a nonprofit theater is never going to keep the lights on through ticket sales alone. The community must pitch in, as it has for these 100 years. May the Rose Bowl and the Playhouse still be packing them in come 2117.

Larry Wilson is a member of the Southern California News Group editorial board. Twitter: @publiceditor.

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